Online Writing Courses: From Crisis to Sustainability
By Bethany Mannon, Georgia Privott, Elliot Froese, and Ali Huffstetler
The Rhetoric and Composition program thought our shift online in March 2020 would be a short-term response to the pandemic and anticipated that we could return to f2f classes in the fall. Before COVID-19, our program offered only a limited number of writing courses online. We had never offered first year writing online because community and interaction are so important to that course. However, NC saw a spike in COVID-19 cases in Summer 2020 and demand for online first-year writing persisted.
Bethany developed a study of our online courses because she had helped faculty move online and wanted to know where they experienced success and challenges. She also saw a need for research on faculty experiences with Online Writing Instruction (OWI). When scholars have studied OWI, they tend to ask how the online environment affects the writing process, look at what students say about their learning, or propose effective practices for course design and teaching. This research has been valuable, but we have more to learn about how faculty implement best practices and what they can tell us about how students learn and grow in online writing courses.
Study Design and Timeline: Spring 2021
Moving courses online interrupted our “normal” approach to first-year writing. As Jackson and Weaver argue in their introduction to Writing in Online Courses, “the online environment calls into question the ‘givens’ of the traditional classroom” (xviii). This shift created a kairotic moment to research the factors that create a resilient writing program and lead to faculty and student success.
Undergraduate researchers working on thsi study gained experience conducting and coding professional interviews. As Elliot pointed out, their dual perspective as both students and researchers provided a wider context our team could use when evaluating the effectiveness of professors’ teaching strategies.
Researchers also noticed the effort professors wanted to put in. Georgia commented “I think a lot of times students just see the assignments and think our professors expect us to know exactly what's going on, when in reality the professor is going through that same internal conflict of struggling with online communication.” This study highlighted what's going on behind the scene -- the struggles and achievements of both professors and students in a new online environment.
Ali Huffstetler summed up the experience:
"It was so enlightening to see professors as the humans that they are, as they mentioned their own personal struggles during the COVID-19 era. As a student, I’ve hardly ever seen this and I think there is typically a big stigma surrounding this emotional vulnerability. I think our research was very timely, as it helped us to see that both students and professors have individual experiences that have an effect on their studies outside of the pandemic, as well.
Our research definitely helped to set the stage for change, both to the online and physical classroom, making learning and teaching sustainable for everyone in the classroom and making mental health and empathy a key part of academia."